PORTLAND, Ore. (AP)—Western Kentucky has goals that reach beyond the NCAA tournament, and utmost among them is to be consistently considered one of the nation’s top mid-majors.
After an unexpected run in last year’s tournament and a first-round upset of Illinois, the 12th-seeded Hilltoppers will play in the second round against Gonzaga, a team that represents exactly what they hope emulate.
The fourth-seeded Bulldogs are making their 11th consecutive appearance in the NCAA tournament. In that span they’ve played to the second round seven times and made it to the round of 16 four times. In 1999, they burst onto the national scene as the scrappy underdogs among the last eight teams standing.
Western Kentucky felt some of that spotlight last season with a tear to the regional semifinals. As the 12th seed, the Hilltoppers first defeated Drake 101-99 on Ty Rogers’ 30-foot buzzer-beater, then beat San Diego 72-63 before falling 88-78 to UCLA.
It isn’t as if the ‘Toppers, as they’re sometimes called, came out of nowhere. They’ve been to the NCAA tournament 21 times. They’ve made it five times this decade.
But the Hilltoppers aren’t quite to the point where they would be considered in the mix for an at-large bid, like Gonzaga, without a conference tournament title.
“I don’t want it to come down to a three-day tournament every year, and I think we’re going to build toward that,” coach Ken McDonald said. “I want to get to the point where we’re really doing well in our conference, and we can schedule out of conference all the time, that national type of schedule like the Zags do, and know that you’re going to be able to have an at-large bid.”
This season no one expected Western Kentucky to come so far. Key pieces of last season’s team were gone: coach Darrin Horn moved on to South Carolina, Courtney Lee was a first-round draft pick by the Orlando Magic, and Rogers graduated.
But inspired by McDonald, the Hilltoppers rolled through the conference and won the Sun Belt tournament to earn an automatic bid.
Once in Portland, they held off the fifth-seeded Illini 76-72 to advance.
“We really had a chip on our shoulder from the beginning of the season, when people didn’t think we were going to do much this year,” guard A.J. Slaughter said. “We keep it in the back of our heads every time we go out and play.”
Slaughter averages a team-best 15.8 points per game for the Hilltoppers, who rely on their crafty backcourt.
They’ll need those guards against the taller and more technically skilled Zags (27-5), who defeated Akron 77-64 on Thursday to move on in the South Region.
Last season, Western Kentucky and Gonzaga played in the Great Alaska Shootout with the Zags coming out on top, 74-51. It is their only prior meeting.
With Gonzaga’s success in the last decade, coach Mark Few has become accustomed to questions about programs looking to the Bulldogs as inspiration. But he also suggested that the Hilltoppers are already in that realm of a more-than mid-major.
“They’re a perennial NCAA tournament team. They win their conference every year. It seems like they always win 20-plus games year in and year out. They were in the Sweet 16 last year,” Few said. “So I think they’ve had a great run. It seems like they’ve got the blueprint that works for them figured out.”
Gonzaga guard Jeremy Pargo was asked Friday whether there was some role reversal going on. Is Western Kentucky a little bit like the Zags were when they became the darlings of 1999?
“I don’t look at them as a mid-major or anything like that—or chasing us or trying to do what we did or anything like that,” Pargo said. “They’re a great team and they take advantage of the opportunities they have.”